Scientists await Japan's word on $9.6 billion linear collider

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Twenty-five years after particle physicists began studying prospects for an International Linear Collider, Japan is poised to decide whether to pay for half of the US$7 billion (S$9.6 billion) project and host the 20-kilometre superconducting tunnel in mountains north-east of Tokyo.

Prospective suppliers from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd and Hitachi Ltd to Thales Group Inc and Air Liquide SA are awaiting a verdict by the end of this year for the project that could generate as much as 5.7 trillion yen (S$68.85 billion) in economic activity, according to estimates by a business group of Iwate, Japan, where the collider, or ILC, would be built.

The ILC is being billed as the world's most advanced particle physics lab. Like the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, on the border between France and Switzerland, it is designed to accelerate particles close to the speed of light and smash them at high energy levels.

Physicists around the world use these massive facilities to study the behaviour of particles in hope of gaining a deeper understanding of how they behave and, thereby, how the universe came into being.

Japan has a history of research into elementary particle physics, with 11 of its scientists receiving Nobel Prizes in physics, according to the ILC Promotion Project Office. Worldwide, there are 300 accelerators for research, with 48 of them in Japan.

Unlike the circular LHC that operates under CERN, the European nuclear physics research group, the ILC is a straight tunnel with damping ovals in the centre and each end, a design intended to accelerate particles to even higher speeds.

The linear collider is being developed by a global group of scientists and Japan has been selected as host for the facility. China has a separate plan to construct a next-generation accelerator.

"Japan needs to do this before China does," said Mr Masanori Matsuoka, secretary-general of Japan's Advanced Accelerator Association Promoting Science and Technology.

"If we don't, we will lose status. We also need to keep academic research and education at a high level."

One hurdle for the Japanese government is the project's price tag. Total costs including construction and labour are as much as 800 billion yen, with about 410 billion yen to be borne by Japan and the rest by the US and European countries.

The ILC would also differ from the Large Hadron Collider in that it's designed to smash particles known as positrons against electrons. The LHC, billed as the world's largest machine, smashes subatomic protons and heavy lead ions against each other.

A particle named the Higgs boson was first observed in 2012 at the LHC, a discovery that led to a Nobel Prize for physicists Francois Englert and Dr Peter Higgs.

Japanese companies have contributed to the development of accelerators in research institutions since the 1960s both in Japan and abroad. There are about 5,000 companies which can produce accelerator-related equipment in Japan, including Mitsubishi Heavy, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric Corp, Toshiba Corp and IHI Corp.

The Science Council of Japan is now deliberating on the ILC plan and the Japanese government will decide whether it will host the project by the end of the year.

"We expect that the Japanese government will show positive commitment," Mr Paul Dabbar, US Under Secretary of Energy for Science, said in October during a visit to Japan to discuss the ILC with politicians who are promoting plans for the facility.

Mitsubishi Heavy, Japan's biggest maker of the superconducting accelerating cavities used in such facilities, has tried to keep accelerator-related technologies and engineers by assigning them to broader areas such as nuclear-related and industrial machinery.

"Highly specialised skills can't possibly be acquired in a short time, so we need to keep accelerator-related technology," said Mr Kazuaki Kimura, senior executive vice-president at Mitsubishi Heavy.

"By trying to produce stably workable accelerators for the ILC, we can develop specialised skills further."